It’s 4 p.m. on a Wednesday and Adam Haizlip and Kevin Loyal call the Student Leadership Council meeting to order virtually via Zoom.
“How are you entering the space today,” Haizlip writes in the chat, inviting the dozen students to type or vocally describe the highs and lows from their day. Answers range from feeling good about doing well in school and being grateful the smoke finally cleared so they can be outside playing basketball to feeling isolated because of COVID-19 regulations.
Haizlip and Loyal are supportive throughout, referring to each student as “King” and pushing the boys to dig deeper and engage with each other. The conversation then turns to the work the Student Leadership Council, or SLC, has been doing and how they can continue to grow and learn together as the school year marches on.
The SLC is a group that includes Black male students from schools across the Seattle Public School District. They’ve come together to support each other as they navigate balancing school and life while mentoring others and providing guidance to administrative leaders in the District as a whole.
“Nothing about us without us” is a phrase used during the meeting to describe the work the Kings are doing.
Haizlip and Loyal are managers in the Office of African American Male Achievement, led by Dr. Mia Williams. The office was created by District Superintendent Denise Juneau in 2019, using recommendations from African American Male Advisory Committee, as a part of Seattle Public School’s five-year strategic plan, Seattle Excellence, which was shaped after listening to and learning from families, staff, students, partners and the broader community. The goal of Seattle Excellence is to make sure every student graduates prepared for college, a career, and community participation with a laser focus on students of color who are furthest from educational justice —and the goal of the AAMA is to reconstruct Seattle Public Schools’ educational environment across the system to support Black boys and teens.
“Black families have been marginalized so much in public education, of course they want to see fixes for each individual child. But the role of AAMA is to push the entire system and address adult practices and our policies that have been a barrier to meeting the needs of all of our African American boys and teens,” Williams says. “By focusing our work on the system, the individual needs of students will be met.”
Williams’ dream is that she works herself out of a job, having successfully transformed the district into one where every department creates an environment that centers Black students, which in turn will help ensure all students thrive.
This type of systemic reform requires community support, and community input. This is critical to understanding how the system is failing and finding ways to change it. The Alliance for Education, a nonprofit organization committed to advancing educational justice and racial equity for students in Seattle Public Schools, is lending their fundraising support to this effort, backing the program with $1.86 million in initial funding from local organizations, including Microsoft Philanthropies.
The reason the Office of AAMA was created and the reason the Alliance’s mission centers on racial equity are the same – our public education system has consistently failed students of color, and particularly our Black and African American male students,” says Alliance for Education President and CEO Lisa Chick. “That needs to change. You can look at historic data for Seattle Public Schools and see the disproportionate impacts of systemic racism, but to really understand how to fix the system, we need to listen to our Black and African American male students, and understand the issues from their perspective.”
The Alliance for Education’s strategies are directly aligned with the district’s strategic plan. For example, their Seattle Teacher Residency program recruits, trains and places a diverse group of 25-30 highly trained teachers in Seattle’s Title I schools (schools with a high percentage of students experiencing poverty) each year.
“I’ve been inspired by the cross-sector commitment I’ve seen to addressing systemic racism in our public education system,” Chick adds. “From the Superintendent’s strategic plan to the creation of the Office of AAMA to our philanthropic partners’ support for that effort, there is a lot of community will to make real change happen.”
To achieve that change, Williams has identified four areas of focus called the Four C’s. Culture. Conditions. Competencies. And Community Connection.
All of the work adults are leading is centered on listening to the students themselves. Their voices must be heard.
One student typed in the chat during a Student Leadership Council meeting, “I feel called to speak up about my and all the other kids like me whose experiences are overlooked. I got a voice and it’s not about to be shut off.”
Another wrote “I feel called to be honest in whatever I do and provide insight or a different point of view on topics.”
The SLC plays a central role in ensuring the voices of students aren’t lost. The Kings in the SLC were tapped by the district to give virtual presentations on how school could safely start in the fall. They’ve also weighed in on COVID-19 planning, grading practices, anti-racism policies, student engagement and Fall 2020 planning.
Haizlip shares his screen during the SLC meeting, one page noting the SLC’s beginning as of February 2020. The end date reads “until infinity,” a good reminder that although Williams might eventually work herself out of a job, the now and future Kings of SLC won’t stop advocating for themselves and a more just future.
The Office of African American Male Achievement works to ensure that the educational environment across the system supports the brilliance and excellence of Black boys and teens. Microsoft is proud to sponsor this article on their behalf.